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Article

The Department Store  

Traci Parker

Department stores were the epicenter of American consumption and modernity in the late 19th and through the 20th century. Between 1846 and 1860 store merchants and commercial impresarios remade dry goods stores and small apparel shops into department stores—downtown emporiums that departmentalized its vast inventory and offered copious services and amenities. Their ascendance corresponded with increased urbanization, immigration, industrialization, and the mass production of machine-made wares. Urbanization and industrialization also helped to birth a new White middle class who were eager to spend their money on material comforts and leisure activities. And department stores provided them with a place where they could do so. Stores sold shoppers an astounding array of high-quality, stylish merchandise including clothing, furniture, radios, sporting equipment, musical instruments, luggage, silverware, china, and books. They also provided an array of services and amenities, including public telephones, postal services, shopping assistance, free delivery, telephone-order and mail-order departments, barber shops, hair salons, hospitals and dental offices, radio departments, shoe-shining stands, wedding gift registries and wedding secretary services, tearooms, and restaurants. Stores enthroned consumption as the route to democracy and citizenship, inviting everybody—regardless of race, gender, age, and class—to enter, browse, and purchase material goods. They were major employers of white-collar workers and functioned as a new public space for women as workers and consumers. The 20th century brought rapid and significant changes and challenges. Department stores weathered economic crises; two world wars; new and intense competition from neighborhood, chain, and discount stores; and labor and civil rights protests that threatened to damage their image and displace them as the nation’s top retailers. They experienced cutbacks, consolidated services, and declining sales during the Great Depression, played an essential role in the war effort, and contended with the Office of Price Administration’s Emergency Price Control Act during the Second World War. In the postwar era, they opened branch locations in suburban neighborhoods where their preferred clientele—the White middle class—now resided and shaped the development and proliferation of shopping centers. They hastened the decline of downtown shopping as a result. The last three decades of the 20th century witnessed a wave of department store closures, mergers, and acquisitions because of changing consumer behaviors, shifts in the retail landscape, and evolving market dynamics. Department stores would continue to suffer into the 21st century as online retailing exploded.

Article

Detroit  

Ryan S. Pettengill

From its earliest origins through the 21st century, Detroit was a capitalist venture that was tied to the global economy. Throughout the pre-Columbian period, Detroit served as a meeting point where a diverse confederation of Native Americans came together to conduct business and diplomacy. Later, the city became a contested territorial holding that the Western imperial powers of France, Spain, Great Britain, and the United States fought over, as it represented a critical gateway that opened up trade to the central and western regions of North America. Between 1835 and 1929, capitalists built wharfs, railroad lines, factories, warehouses, and other forms of industrial infrastructure, attracting throngs of working-class job seekers and causing Detroit’s population to boom from approximately 1,100 in 1819 to more than one million in 1930. The population peaked at nearly two million in 1950 and, by 2020, it had declined to approximately 700,000. Detroit’s history might be thought of in three distinct periods: a pre-Columbian period where the region consisted of a preindustrial space that was occupied by Anishinaabeg peoples, later to be claimed by European colonists; a long industrial era in which businessmen, such as Henry Ford, centralized production within the city; and a slow period of economic decline as the city struggled to adapt to different trends in a global economy. As Detroit entered the 21st century, the city faced a declining population, rising budget deficits, and a crumbling infrastructure. Still, as several multinational corporations based their operations out of Detroit, the city remained a capitalist venture fundamentally tied to the global economy.

Article

New York City  

Matthew Vaz

The contemporary city of New York, comprising the five boroughs of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island, covers three hundred square miles and contains almost nine million people. Often described as the center of the world, the city is home to the headquarters of the United Nations and is a hub of global media and finance. Yet New York is also a city of neighborhoods, animated by remarkably local concerns. The dense population, the complex government, the vast wealth, the archetypal urban poverty, and the intricate and impressive built environment have all taken form through a layered series of encounters among groups over the course of four centuries. The Lenape Indians, the original settlers of the area, encountered Dutch colonizers in 1624. The English seized control from the Dutch in 1664. Both the Dutch and the English imported enslaved Africans in large numbers. The natural advantages of the harbor propelled the area’s growth, attracting settlers from elsewhere in North America in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Human-created infrastructures like the Erie Canal spurred economic growth after 1825 that attracted European immigrants from western and northern Europe in the mid-19th century and Europeans from southern and eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1898, five counties were consolidated and created the five boroughs of New York City with a population surpassing three million. African Americans from the US South and Latinos from the Caribbean migrated to New York throughout the 20th century; by 1950, the city’s population was 7.8 million. After 1980, the population began to climb again with new waves of immigration from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. For more than four hundred years, the processes of conflict and cooperation have been animated by schisms and tensions of religion, ethnicity, race, and class. As groups and individuals competed for resources and power in the city, politics and governance confronted conceptual issues such as calibrating the extent of public services, the role of religion in public life, the rights of workers, and the value of living in a multiethnic and multiracial society.

Article

Racial Inequality and Its Remedies in the US Labor Market  

Randall L. Patton

Active social movements and the changes they wrought both through direct action and indirectly through pressure campaigns dismantled racial exclusion and diminished racial discrimination in employment, like racial apartheid in public accommodations and other aspects of American life. Social movement pressure fostered voluntary actions from the business community, government action on equal employment, and a changing climate of public opinion. Voluntary, quasi-voluntary, and regulatory (compulsory) approaches combined to improve labor market outcomes for African Americans. The term segregation as used here denotes the system of formal and informal exclusion from and discrimination in employment aimed at persons of African descent. The dismantling of exclusionary barriers and the diminishing of discriminatory practices combined with general economic growth to improve living standards for African Americans through the late 20th century. Regional variation was significant, with Black workers in the Northern states benefiting somewhat less than might have been expected. The effects of neoliberal reform, deindustrialization, and lingering discrimination, however, revealed the limits of reform and left significant economic challenges in the early 21st century.

Article

The Populist Movement in the 19th Century  

Charles Postel

American Populism of the 1880s and 1890s marked the political high-water mark of the social movements of farmers, wage earners, women, and other sectors of society in the years after the Civil War. These movements forged the People’s Party, also known as the Populist Party, which campaigned against corporate power and economic inequality and was one of the most successful third parties in US history. Populist candidates won gubernatorial elections in nine states and gained some forty-five seats in the US Congress, including six seats in the Senate, and in 1892 the Populist presidential candidate, James B. Weaver of Iowa, received over a million votes, more than 8 percent of the total. The Populist Party was not a conventional political party but a coalition of organizations, including the Farmers’ Alliances, the Knights of Labor, and other reform movements, in what the Populists described as a “congress of industrial orders.” These organizations gave the People’s Party its strength and shaped its character as a party of working people with a vision of egalitarian cooperation and solidarity comparable to the labor, farmer-labor, and social-democratic parties in Europe and elsewhere that took shape in the same decades. Despite their egalitarian claims, however, the Populists had at best a mixed attitude towards the struggles for racial equality, and at worst accommodated Indian dispossession, Chinese exclusion, and Jim Crow segregation. In terms of its legacy, veterans of the Populist movement and many of its policy proposals would shape progressive and labor-farmer politics deep into the 20th century, partly by way of the Socialist Party, but mainly by way of the progressive or liberal wings of the Democratic and Republican Parties. At the same time, the adjective “populist” has come to describe a wide variety of political phenomena, including right-wing and nationalist movements, that have no particular connection to the late 19th-century Populism.

Article

Guest Workers in U.S. History  

David Griffith

Guest workers have been part of the economic and cultural landscapes of the United States since the founding of republics across the Americas, evolving from indentured servants to the use of colonial subjects to foreign nationals imported under a variety of intergovernmental agreements and U.S. visas. Guest worker programs became institutionalized with the Bracero Program with Mexico, which ran from 1942 to 1964, and with the British West Indies Temporary Alien Labor Program, which began in 1943. Both of these programs were established under the Emergency Farm Labor Supply Program to address real and perceived labor shortages in agriculture during World War II. Both programs were structurally similar to programs employed to import colonial subjects, primarily Puerto Ricans, for U.S. agriculture. Although the U.S. Departments of Labor and Agriculture oversaw the operation of the programs during the war, control over guest workers’ labor and the conditions of their employment increasingly became the responsibility of their employers and employer associations following the war. Nevertheless, U.S. government support for guest worker programs has been steady, if uneven, since the 1940s, and most new legislation addressing immigration reform has included some sort of guest worker provision. Under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, for example, H-2A and H-2B visas were created to import workers primarily from Latin America and the Caribbean for low-wage work in agricultural (H-2A) and non-agricultural (H-2B) seasonal employment. In the Immigration Act of 1990, H-1 visas were added to import guest workers, primarily from India and China, for work in computer programming, higher education, and other skilled occupations. Although an unknown portion of the guest worker labor force resists the terms of their employment and slips into the shadow economy as undocumented immigrants, the number of legal guest workers in the United States has increased into the 21st century.

Article

Railroad Workers and Organized Labor  

Paul Michel Taillon

Railroad workers occupy a singular place in United States history. Working in the nation’s first “big businesses,” they numbered in the hundreds of thousands, came from a wide range of ethnic and racial groups, included both men and women, and performed a wide range of often esoteric tasks. As workers in an industry that shaped the nation’s financial, technological, and political-economic development, railroaders drove the leading edge of industrialization in the 19th century and played a central role in the nation’s economy for much of the 20th. With the legends of “steel-driving” John Henry and “Cannonball” Casey Jones, railroad workers entered the national folklore as Americans pondered the benefits and costs of progress in an industrial age. Those tales highlighted the glamor and rewards, the risks and disparities, and the gender-exclusive and racially hierarchical nature of railroad work. They also offer insight into the character of railroad unionism, which, from its beginnings in the 1860s, oriented toward craft-based, male-only, white-supremacist forms of organization. Those unions remained fragmented, but they also became among the most powerful in the US labor movement, leveraging their members’ strategic location in a central infrastructural industry, especially those who operated the trains. That strategic location also ensured that any form of collective organization—and therefore potential disruption of the national economy—would lead to significant state intervention. Thus, the epic railroad labor conflict of the late 19th century generated the first federal labor relations laws in US history, which in turn set important precedents for 20th-century national labor relations policy. At the same time, the industry nurtured the first national all-Black, civil-rights-oriented unions, which played crucial roles in the 20th-century African American freedom struggle. By the mid-20th century, however, with technological change and the railroads entering a period of decline, the numbers of railroad workers diminished and with them, too, their once-powerful unions.

Article

The Late-19th-Century Economy  

Sean Adams

The United States underwent massive economic change in the four decades following the end of the American Civil War in 1865. A vibrant industrial economy catapulted the nation to a world leader in mining and manufacturing; the agricultural sector overcame organizational and technological challenges to increase productivity; and the innovations in financial, accounting, and marketing methods laid the foundation for a powerful economy that would dominate the globe in the 20th century. The emergence of this economy, however, did not come without challenges. Workers in both the industrial and agricultural sectors offered an alternative path for the American economy in the form of labor strikes and populist reforms; their attempts to disrupt the growing concentration of wealth and power played out in both the polls and the factory floor. Movements that sought to regulate the growth of large industrial firms and railroads failed to produce much meaningful policy, even as they raised major critiques of the emerging economic order. In the end, a form of industrial capitalism emerged that used large corporate structures, relatively weak unions, and limited government interventions to build a dynamic, but unbalanced, economic order in the United States.

Article

Latinx Business and Entrepreneurship  

Pedro A. Regalado

Entrepreneurship has been a basic element of Latinx life in the United States since long before the nation’s founding, varying in scale and cutting across race, class, and gender to different degrees. Indigenous forms of commerce pre-dated Spanish contact in the Americas and continued thereafter. Beginning in the 16th century, the raising, trading, and production of cattle and cattle-related products became foundational to Spanish, Mexican, and later American Southwest society and culture. By the 19th century, Latinxs in US metropolitan areas began to establish enterprises in the form of storefronts, warehouses, factories, as well as smaller ventures including peddling. At times, they succeeded previous ethnic owners; in other moments, they established new businesses that shaped everyday life and politics of their respective communities. Whatever the scale of their ventures, Latinx business owners continued to capitalize on the migration of Latinx people to the United States from Latin America and the Caribbean during the 20th century. These entrepreneurs entered business for different reasons, often responding to restricted or constrained labor options, though many sought the flexibility that entrepreneurship offered. Despite an increasing association between Latinx people and entrepreneurship, profits from Latinx ventures produced uneven results during the second half of the 20th century. For some, finance and business ownership has generated immense wealth and political influence. For others at the margins of society, it has remained a tool for achieving sustenance amid the variability of a racially stratified labor market. No monolithic account can wholly capture the vastness and complexity of Latinx economic activity. Latinx business and entrepreneurship remains a vital piece of the place-making and politics of the US Latinx population. This article provides an overview of major trends and pivotal moments in its rich history.

Article

Labor and US Foreign Relations  

Elizabeth McKillen

American workers have often been characterized by the press, scholars, and policy-makers as apathetic and ill-informed about foreign policy issues. To highlight this point, scholars have frequently used an anecdote about a blue-collar worker who responded to an interviewer’s questions regarding international issues in the 1940s by exclaiming “Foreign Affairs! That’s for people who don’t have to work for a living.” Yet missing from many such appraisals is a consideration of the long history of efforts by both informal groups of workers and labor unions to articulate and defend the perceived international interests of American workers. During the early years of the American Republic, groups of workers used crowd actions, boycotts, and protests to make their views on important foreign policy issues known. In the late 19th century, emerging national labor unions experimented with interest group lobbying as well as forms of collective action championed by the international labor movement to promote working-class foreign policy interests. Many 20th- and 21st-century US labor groups shared in common a belief that government leaders failed to adequately understand the international concerns and perspectives of workers. Yet such groups often pursued different types of foreign policy influence. Some dominant labor organizations, such as the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), participated in federal bureaucracies, advisory councils, and diplomatic missions and programs designed to encourage collaboration among business, state, and labor leaders in formulating and promoting US foreign policy. Yet other labor groups, as well as dissidents within the AFL and CIO, argued that these power-sharing arrangements compromised labor’s independence and led some trade union leaders to support policies that actually hurt both American and foreign workers. Particularly important in fueling internal opposition to AFL-CIO foreign policies were immigrant workers and those with specific ethno-racial concerns. Some dissenting groups and activists participated in traditional forms of interest group lobbying in order to promote an independent international agenda for labor; others committed themselves to the foreign policy programs of socialist, labor, or communist parties. Still others, such as the Industrial Workers of the World, advocated strike and international economic actions by workers to influence US foreign policy or to oppose US business activities abroad.